September 19, 2011

Oh, and I Hate Your Book

There is a lot of talk nowadays about whether the Internet is making us stupid. I don't know that I agree with that; I incline to the belief that rather than making people less intelligent, the Internet provides those people who didn't have much intelligence to start with to put that stupidity up where everyone else can see it. You can find examples of this anywhere on the Internet and one comes to expect it in places like Facebook and the comments on YouTube videos. Unfortunately, however, it also shows up in places where one would think people might show a little more tact and wisdom, like the reviews on Amazon. It has become such a simple business to put one's opinions out there that most people no longer think about it, and it really, truly, absolutely shows.

How do you write reviews that are both honest and tactful? Obviously this is not such a big deal if you liked the book, but what if you didn't? In some cases the nursery rule "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all" ought to be referred to; I think this every time my eye happens to catch a YouTube comment about how awful this or that song is. Really, if you don't like it, you don't have to listen to or read it and you certainly don't have to tell the whole world about it. However, now most publishers send out copies of new releases to bloggers and owners of websites in return for honest reviews, so readers are obliged to give their opinion. What to do if you disliked the book?

determine why you disliked it

Whatever you do, don't go post an Amazon review that says, "This book was so stupid and I just hated it. I couldn't get past page 67." The whole point of reviews is to show prospective buyers what they will be getting, so avoid spoilers, but try to give the basic pros and cons of the book. If you disliked it, there is no call for venting your spleen in a public place. And while the publishing house does say that reviewers are not obligated to give positive feedback, do recall that you have received a free book and try to be respectful and appreciative.

opinions or truths

If you are going to review books, keep in mind objectivity versus subjectivity. It may be your opinion that the book was too slow in getting started, but recall that others are fond of novels that start off slowly and build over a longer space of time. If a book offends due to immoral content, on the other hand, this is more than a matter of opinion; it is a matter of conscience, especially if the publisher and the author profess to be Christians and to publish and write books grounded in Scripture. However, in both cases reviewers should maintain tact. Don't figuratively burn the book in your review (you may literally burn it if you want) and certainly do not attack the author. Amazon is not primarily a forum for your views; it is a marketplace and your thoughts on books should be presented in a helpful manner. Sites like Goodreads are geared more toward your own views and preferences, but even here common courtesy should be maintained.

remember that authors read reviews

Anne Elisabeth Stengl posted the other day about an author's reaction to feedback, and she made the point that the negative is much more memorable than the positive. Granted, authors should have tough skins; granted, if they can't take people not caring for their books, they shouldn't read reviews. I certainly don't think authors should ever respond to a negative review in order to tell the reviewer what an idiot they are for not loving the author's baby. However, on the part of the reviewer, they should always be as courteous as possible and not cause unnecessary offense. Don't end a review by warning readers away from other books by the author, especially if you have not read them, and be extremely wary of referring to the author directly. (For instance, don't say that the book was so bad that the author must be going senile.)

find the silver lining

Yes, I'll admit that some books don't have a silver lining. Sometimes the best you can say is, "Well... It has a nice cover!" But if there is something good to say, say it; don't be too stingy with compliments. Maybe the characters were all as flat as day-old pancakes and you have to remark on this (not in so many words, please), but if the author did an admirable job with research, mention that as well. Try to keep in mind that, even if appearances are to the contrary, the author probably did labor a great deal over their book. This doesn't mean that you should never say anything negative about anyone's book, but it does mean that you should be careful how you say it. Be honest, but be tactful. The traits can be combined.

choose the books carefully

When I started getting books to review for the site I help run, I didn't know much about modern novels and so I failed to be picky enough. I've since learned that, being more accustomed to old books than newer ones, I have to choose carefully which ones I want to review in order to avoid giving out single-star reviews. If you don't like fantasy, don't request a review copy of a fairy tale. It's amazing how many one-star Amazon reviews start out with, "I don't actually like [insert particular genre] but I thought I'd give this book a try," progress to, "I hated it," and end with, "Free review copy provided by [name of publisher]." Remember that the publishing house is spending money in order to send "free" books to you; don't be selfish or rude. Only request a book if you honestly think it might be good.

respect opinions

...especially if those "opinions" are on moral issues that the reviewer saw in the book. Amazon has a function to comment on reviews, but I think this should be reserved for comments on reviews that are rude or otherwise uncalled for (and even then, commenting is usually a waste of time). If someone dislikes a book, you won't convince them to like it by commenting on their review to tell them all the wonderful things about the novel that they missed. If another person has given their honest, respectful opinion, don't get in a tizzy over it if that opinion happens to be negative.

What do you think? If a reviewer, do you find it harder to be honest or to be tactful about a book you disliked? If a writer, how do you respond to negative feedback?


  1. As a reviewer of books and films myself, I know how hard it can be to strike a balance. Thanks for this thought-provoking post!

    However, I think there is a time to review books that there is little good about, because as a reader, I want to know if the book I was thinking about buying is flat or morally atrocious.

    As a writer -- well, I've not been published, and all my test readers have been extraordinarily kind, so I haven't much to say about negative reviews yet. :)

    ~ Grace

  2. Agreed, Grace. I was thinking in more subjective terms just then, but I think there is a time for reviewing books that are no good for the purpose of letting others know. It's the balance, I think, of "speaking the truth in love."

    Thanks for commenting!

  3. I dunno, I feel it's part of reviewer's obligation to excoriate an author for having been lazy, inaccurate, obtuse, flat-out boring, or otherwise delinquent as a custodian of our shared linguistic and intellectual heritage. However, I review primarily on Goodreads, and my first objective is to discuss the piece as a work of art and an exploration of the human condition, and only second to make a recommendation. If I'm going to make such a denunciation, however, I'll take pains to explain the reasoning behind it, lest I find myself guilty of the same thoughtlessness that I'm holding against the author.

    I could go on about the particulars here, but instead I'll simply offer a few examples of books that I've found lacking, and my reactions to them:

    Breakfast of Champions

    Pillars of the Earth

    One Hundred Years of Solitude

    A final note, regarding stupidity on the internet. The phenomenon you describe has been captured with alarming accuracy by the inimitable Gabe and Tycho over at Penny Arcade. I won't link to it, as it contains strong language (a theme that pervades the site in general), but if you're feeling brave, check out their comic for March 14, 2004. Truer words have seldom graced the Webz.

  4. I ALWAYS try to say something good about books that I think, personally, stink. (I promise though, I didn't have to even TRY with yours...I had to find something just to put in the 'cons' :-D).

    If you got a stinkin' book, sorry, its your own fault. Is my mentality. Even to I HAVE experienced such things.

    We shouldn't try to break fellow authors down, but help gently point out where they might've erred. It will help them produce better works in the long run than an out right critic will.

  5. I have to say, though, Chewie, your own examples are rather poor ones if you're playing Devil's advocate, since they're all very fair and well-rounded. You make good points about the problems with each, but you're gracious enough for me, at least. And you think out your remarks; that goes a long way to making a good review.

    In addition to that, I think a negative review largely speaks for itself without dragging the author into it. I don't think it's absolutely necessary that you not say anything against the writer, but in general to say that you disliked the writing style, the morals, the worldview, or whatever, is saying that you disagree with the author and/or think him a bore. So I would say, if you can't phrase your comments on the author with skill, leave him or her out of the picture.

  6. Nice post, defiantly things to keep in mind:)


meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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